Terrible, triumphant day, 70 years ago

"Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely."

From Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's message sent to soliders, sailors and airmen just prior to the D-Day invasion.

While nothing could prepare the men for what they would confront when they stormed the beaches of Normandy, France 70 years ago this day, they had received enough warning to know they would face fierce opposition and that D-Day could well be their last day. For thousands, it was.

But come ashore they did, following orders, ordinary Americans, Canadians and Brits, asked to do an extraordinary thing, liberating a place most would probably never have visited in their lifetimes if not for this terrible war.

The U.S. Force represented the cultural diversity of America, though not yet its racial diversity - true integration would await President Harry Truman's 1948 executive order. The men storming Omaha Beach and Juno Beach came from the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, from the rural areas of the South and the rapidly expanding communities of the nation's Pacific Coast.

In trying to secure a foothold in Western Europe and reverse the expansion of the German Nazi forces, they faced terrible obstacles.

Pulitzer-prize winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who captured the public's attention and the respect of the common soldier by writing from the perspective of the GI, arrived June 7. Observing the fortifications that had confronted allied soldiers a day earlier, he observed, "Now that it is over it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all."

While the Germans had not completed their fortifications, they were still formidable. Concrete gun emplacements perched above 100-foot bluffs, supplemented by machine-gun nests lower on the slopes, allowed the Germans to spray the beaches with gunfire from all directions. The open beaches provided no refuge from the crossfire.

Trenches dug 15-feet deep blocked the progress of the D-Day invading forces. The few valleys between the bluffs that provided potential escape from the beaches were sowed with mines and filled with barbed-wire.

In addition to artillery fire, the landing craft delivering soldiers, tanks and other equipment onto the beach confronted a gauntlet of mines and barriers of man-sized, crisscrossed iron bars.

Seven decades later, the magnitude of the invasion remains staggering. On June 6 six divisions - three United States, two British, one Canadian - provided a force of 160,000 allied troops storming the Normandy beaches. Behind the lines, 13,000 paratroopers and 500 gliders diverted the attention of the German defenders and disrupted the arrival of re-enforcements.

The attack on a 50-mile stretch of the French coastline included 5,000 ships and landing craft and 13,000 aircraft.

While numbers vary, accounts place day-one allied casualties at nearly 12,000, with more than 4,400 dead and 8,000 wounded. The Germans suffered about 1,000 killed.

The invasion was chaotic. Post-landing plans quickly fell aside, as many of the arriving liberators were pinned down. Landing craft were pushed by currents far from their intended destinations or stuck on sandbars and obstacles too far from the shore. Paratroopers were blown from their targets, caught in trees, injured while landing. The ability of the allied warriors to attain their ultimate objective in the face of so much going wrong only adds to the extraordinary nature of their victory.

Seventy years is a long time when measured in human terms. Few of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who survived that day and the fighting that would follow it remain alive today. But their courage and sacrifices should never be forgotten.

Had they failed, it would have delayed the fall of the German Third Reich, perhaps by years. Soviet influence over post-war Europe, whose forces pressed from the east, could have turned out to be much greater.

On this 70th anniversary, Europe and the Americas again look back in gratitude.

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